IF Leeds United are to avoid last season’s fate of tumbling down the table faster than the autumn leaves fall from the tree, Tyler Roberts will be owed a huge debt of thanks.
With Kemar Roofe and £7m summer signing Patrick Bamford not having kicked a ball in anger since the end of August through injury, the burden of goalscoring has fallen on the shoulders of the Welsh international.
Three goals in five starts points to Roberts answering the call admirably, not least because United’s only two wins in the absence of their injured duo have come with the striker’s name on the scoresheet.
Last night, he settled a contest that, for all United’s dominance of possession, could easily have piled more frustration on the 2,600 travelling fans. After having to settle for a point from Friday’s derby at Sheffield Wednesday despite dominating, another stalemate on Yorkshire soil would have been hard to take.
A couple of gilt-edged opportunities going begging in the first half, Barry Douglas and Ezgjan Alioski the guilty parties, had suggested this may not be Marcelo Bielsa’s night once again.
Roberts, however, had other ideas and his drilled 20-yard shot six minutes into the second half was enough to send Leeds back to the Championship summit.
West Bromwich Albion can snatch back pole position tonight with victory at Sheffield Wednesday.
But a repeat of last season’s dramatic slide – when top spot in late September had morphed into tenth place by the November international break amid a total collapse in form – looks less and less likely with each passing week.
As for Hull, there is a distinct sense of deja-vu. Another long winter beckons at the KCOM Stadium, most likely with the spectre of relegation hanging over Nigel Adkins’s men. Only Tommy Elphick and Eric Lichaj among the home players caught the eye on a night when the game plan had clearly been to try and contain Leeds.
Getting 10 men behind the ball whenever anyone in white had possession was the means and it initially worked well. As did Adkins flooding the centre of midfield with as many bodies as possible.
But, once behind, City rarely looked capable of pegging back a Leeds side who, while a long way from being at their best, did enough to warrant all three points.
United saw plenty of the ball, including a mammoth 75 per cent of possession in those opening 45 minutes.
Bielsa’s men, however, managed just one effort on target all night.
The wall of amber and black that blocked their route to goal from the opening stages played a big part.
As did a ‘thou shalt not pass’ mentality that was perhaps best epitomised by Lichaj, his tackle to prevent Samuel Saiz scampering clear in the first half being from the very top drawer.
So, too, was the one time Leeds full-back managing to get his head on a dangerous right-wing cross after the break when all alone inside the six-yard box and surrounded by three visiting players.
Elphick was in similarly defiant mood against a Leeds side who Bielsa revealed on the eve of the trip east had been practising the 14 ways he considers goals can be scored.
In Roberts’s case, practice clearly makes perfect judging by the arrowed finish that ultimately decided a contest that will not live long in the memory.
His strike was well timed. A couple of gilt-edged opportunities had come and gone in the latter stages of the first half. First, Alioski managed to fire wide with just David Marshall to beat after latching on to a delightful flick from Roberts.
That was a bad miss but nothing compared to what followed on the stroke of half-time.
Douglas was the offender this time by somehow failing to convert an Alioski cross from a similar distance to when he had headed against a post at Hillsborough.
Once ahead through Roberts, United’s swagger did return and Kalvin Phillips had a big shout for a penalty turned down after Elphick had thrown himself in front of a goalbound effort. Hull did belatedly threaten, Elphick’s header from a Kamil Grosicki free-kick flashing just wide of the post.
Nouha Dicko and Jarrod Bowen also couldn’t quite apply the finishing touch during a late goalmouth scramble but, in truth, Leeds were full value for the points.
Hull City: Marshall; Lichaj, Burke, Elphick; Kane, Henriksen, Irvine (Stewart 28); Bowen, Martin (Campbell 64), Grosicki (Dicko 64). Unused substitutes: Stewart, Batty, Keane, Curry, McKenzie.
Leeds United: Peacock-Farrell; Phillips, Jansson, Cooper; Ayling, Klich, Douglas (Shackleton 82); Saiz (Forshaw 74); Harrison (Dallas 74), Roberts, Alioski. Unused substitutes: Blackman, Pearce, Baker, Clarke.
Referee: D Bond (Lancashire).